9 Investigates: Is the justice system stopping youth gun violence?

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. — When gun violence takes the life of a child and tears a family apart, finding closure and justice can be nearly impossible.

For several weeks, Channel 9′s Allison Latos has been investigating how well the justice system is working and learned people have very different opinions.

In 2019, North Carolina passed the “Raise the Age” law so that 16- and 17-year-olds facing lower-level felonies are no longer charged as adults. For serious crimes like murder, they do go through the adult court system after an indictment or finding of probable cause.

But when the suspected shooter is under 16, the district attorney makes the tough choice of whether to prosecute in juvenile or adult court.

‘Fighting for justice’

In February, 15-year-old Martin Tashpulatova was murdered outside a northeast Charlotte apartment complex on Mallard Park Drive. Police arrested another 15-year-old for Martin’s murder.

Martin’s mother, Kamilla, said she moved her family from Russia, never imagining their American Dream would become a never-ending nightmare.

“We have to live in this reality that someone just comes and kills your child,” Kamilla said. “I’m fighting for my son’s justice. I’m fighting for justice.”

Kamilla came to the courthouse for every single hearing in her son’s murder case.

“You see the murderer of your son every week -- alive, breathing, laughing, telling his mom, ‘I love you.’ And mine is dead,” she said. “I want him to be prosecuted as an adult, but it is complicated because he is a juvenile.”

‘We need more choices’

That decision lands in the hands of district attorneys like Mecklenburg County DA Spencer Merriweather.

“The choices I face in deciding whether to transfer the case to adult court is exposing that child to something that could potentially put them in custody for the rest of their life, and that is a decision we could be making at 14, 15, 16. Or am I going to leave that person in our juvenile system, where no matter what happens to them, they will be out and back on the street with supervision, likely within six months,” Merriweather told Latos. “We need more choices, more alternatives. Right now, we don’t have that.”

Merriweather said of the more than 70 homicides in Charlotte in 2022, at least 10 were committed by suspects under 16.

But Merriweather wants lawmakers to give him more discretion so a suspect’s age can be considered without eliminating accountability.

“The last part of the brain that develops for young males is the frontal cortex -- the part of the brain that says, ‘Don’t do this; it’s stupid,’” said William Lassiter, deputy secretary for North Carolina Juvenile Justice. “We want to make sure we don’t destroy a young person’s life because they made one stupid mistake.”

Lassiter said that’s why North Carolina raised the age in 2019. Now, 16- and 17-year-olds charged with nonviolent crimes are handled through the juvenile court system.

But police across the community, like Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Matt Teague, said problems persist.

“It’s frustrating that they’re not staying detained very long, and they’re right back out committing crime,” he said.

Latos asked Teague if he thought the “Raise the Age” legislation was working.

“No. I think it was built on good intentions, but on a state level, the resources needed were not there and still aren’t,” he responded.

Mecklenburg County Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed sits on the state’s public safety committee. He argues more mental health services, social workers and school psychologists are the answers.

“When people tell you that we went too lenient by raising the age, they’re wrong. They are absolutely wrong,” Mohammed said. “The tough-on-crime solution we have had for decades doesn’t work. When you’re still in a jail cell, you’re losing education and opportunity. When you treat young people like adults, they’re going to get re-arrested, reincarcerated.”

From the court to the community, Latos said one thing stuck out in all her interviews -- the urgent need for everyone to be involved and invested.

“Kids don’t get love from family, and they find that love on the streets,” said Martin’s mother, Kamilla.

(WATCH BELOW: Youth gun violence: Why is it happening and how can it be stopped?)